Summer is officially underway, and Montanans and visitors alike are hitting the road and already setting record visitation levels at Yellowstone and many of our treasured national parks.
As us Montanans know, our roadways are traveled by more than just fancy Airstreams and SUVs with out-of-state license plates. From deer to elk, bears to bobcats, and moose to pronghorn antelope, the diverse wildlife that draws millions of people to Montana each year are unfortunately the same animals that we too often see, lying dead by the side of the road.
Wildlife-vehicle collisions are a serious issue, and the numbers are striking. Along Highway 89 between Gardiner and Livingston, which many people travel on to visit Yellowstone, nearly half of the vehicle collisions involve wildlife. And nationwide, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that more than 26,000 human injuries and over 200 deaths occur from an estimated one to two million large animal-vehicle collisions each year. Such collisions cost $8 billion annually to taxpayers.
Montana has made progress over the years, but more support is needed. As we have seen on Highway 93 as it crosses through Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal lands south of Glacier National Park, the combination of fencing, underpasses, overpasses, and other simple infrastructure can protect motorists and wildlife. And for the last 18 months, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has worked with a coalition of partners to build support among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and residents of southwest Montana to address the impacts of wildlife vehicle collisions on the Paradise Valley and Gardiner Basin. Yellowstone Safe Passages (www.yellowstonesafepassages.org) will continue to build momentum to support collaborative solutions that address and resolve wildlife-vehicle conflict on Highway 89.
When traveling to parks, there is another transportation-based challenge to consider. The National Park System is second only to the Department of Defense in the amount of federal infrastructure it manages, including 10,000 miles of roadways and 1,440 bridges. While our parks are facing record visitation, nearly 40% of park roadways are in disrepair, with significant improvements needed Glacier and Yellowstone, among others. Addressing transportation needs can ensure that visitors have the park experiences they expect and deserve. Fortunately, Congress has also prioritized this issue, with House and Senate transportation and infrastructure bills that include a range of benefits.
The House of Representatives recently passed the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (INVEST) in America Act, that includes nearly $2 billion in improvements. The bill includes $75-100 million annually in dedicated funding for grants for states, federal agencies, Tribes, local governments to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. As a member of Montana’s for Safe Wildlife Passage (www.mtsafewildlifepassage.org), NPCA and partners advocate for innovative solutions to improve or maintain habitat connectivity across roadways, to support people, fish, and wildlife. Funding opportunities through the INVEST in America Act will help to advance wildlife-vehicle infrastructure projects across the Big Sky state.
The INVEST in America Act also advances research to help transportation officials learn more about the causes, consequences, and future solutions to addressing wildlife-vehicle collisions. Studies have shown that wildlife collision reduction infrastructure is a cost-effective way to reduce crashes with wildlife by up to 97% while conserving species.
Park-specific efforts include a $200 million per year federal investment in large repair projects, such as Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road. The Senate is considering a similar version of the transportation bill.
With last year’s resounding, bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, our members of Congress proved their dedication to fixing our parks’ decaying buildings and outdated visitor centers. We hope the Montana congressional delegation will work to swiftly pass final legislation that tackles the transportation and other infrastructure challenges motorists, wildlife, and parks face.